The title of Darren C. Demaree’s newest poetry collection, Unfinished Murder Ballads, beautifully sets the haunting tone of his work long before you can turn its first page. A murder ballad, as the name suggests, tells the story of a violent death; what does it mean to leave such ballads unfinished? All at once, the collection’s title blends death, stories that are passed down as folklore, and an overarching sense of loss. These persist through the entire work, which is made up of moments that build up into a portrait of isolation, violence, intimacy, and perhaps above all, humanity.
At first glance, Unfinished Murder Ballads reads like prose, with its poems foregoing line breaks and never stretching longer than the average paragraph. Sometimes, such as with the aptly-named “Strobe-Effect,” the piece is only a sentence long – a flash of a moment on an otherwise empty page. Demaree often switches between first, second, and third-person narration, bringing together characters of all sorts and never giving the reader more than a few pieces of any of them. At times, the jumps between fragments can be disorienting and puzzling, as are many of the poems on their own. The extremely specific titles that accompany some poems, such as “We Take More Photographs Of The Dead Boy” and “In Some Towns There Is Only One Public Official And One Sex Worker,” are often just as confusing as they are enlightening. At times they dabble in the absurd, such as “The Only Dedicated Cowboy In Columbus, Ohio Objects To The Price Of His Black Coffee.”
Titles like “She Made It No Further Than Nebraska” and “The Woman Finds Her Ex-Lover In An Alley In Philadelphia” situate the collection in the United States – though many require no specific location. The American Midwest is highlighted by an interlude of photos from Ryan Barker’s collection, Midwest Nostalgia. These photographs, which are the only accompanying visuals to Demaree’s verse, are notable on their own; from a ruined room to a sign advertising dead animals, they artfully balance the recognizable and the eerie. Like in Demaree’s poems, at the heart of these photographs is human presence, which lingers even though no people are visible in them. The question that seems to hang over the pictures and poetry is simply, what happened here? Perhaps someone knew at some point, but the reader only has the aftermath to draw conclusions from.
On the whole, Demaree pulls together a fascinating assortment of fragments that might raise more questions than it provides answers, and is compelling because of that. Its strangeness, its quiet, and its bursts of violence make it a highly memorable collection. Unfinished Murder Ballads is not a work that loudly demands to be read; rather, it haunts, unsettles, and pulls its reader back in.
Acta Victoriana received an advance copy of Unfinished Murder Ballads prior to its publication for review.
A murder ballad, as the name suggests, tells the story of a violent death; what does it mean to leave such ballads unfinished?